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28 Mar, 2010 04:15

Illusions versus reality: NATO and Afghan opium

NATO and Russia have failed to reach a consensus in a tug of war over tackling the Afghan drug problem. The alliance has rejected Moscow’s appeal to eradicate opium poppy fields in the Islamic Republic.

Commenting on the move, Viktor Ivanov, the head of Russia’s Federal Drug Control Service (FSKN), said it is “confusing, to say the least.”

Earlier Thursday, Reuters reports, NATO spokesman James Appathurai said, "We cannot be in a situation where we remove the only source of income of people who live in the second-poorest country in the world without being able to provide them with an alternative."

According to Ivanov, such an approach looks strange in the current situation. “If one goes on with this 'concern for the people', one should point out that the price of opium has dropped from $90 to $60 per kilogram,” he is quoted as saying by Itar-Tass. “So, one could assume that it is necessary to increase the area of the plantations by 50 per cent."

The head of Russia’s drug control watchdog said the alliance’s statements “run counter to the UN resolution on the obligation of all the countries to destroy plantations with narcotics-containing crops".

Drug smugglers easily transport Afghan heroin and opium into Central Asia and Russia, and thence to Western Europe. According to statistics "the losses of the civilian population of Europe caused by opium-based narcotics exceed the losses of the NATO military contingent in Afghanistan by 50 times."

The idea of creating the alliance, Ivanov said, was to protect the member states from outside threats. "At present NATO is not fulfilling its task of protecting the population of its countries against the threat of drugs distribution," Ivanov said. "Afghanistan produces heroin in enormous amounts. It has actually been turned into the world’s 'heroin-basket'."

While the main headaches for Moscow are the terrifying statistics on drug flow from Afghanistan and thousands of deaths caused by narcotics, the West, pursuing its tangled strategy, does not want to anger the Afghan population and thus lose their loyalty. Despite talks on co-operation and mutual promises, the whole business still looks a bit like a tug of war, with each side having its own truth and interest.

In that respect, for instance, Appathurai reminded that NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen had asked Moscow for increased support in the Islamic Republic, which would include training anti-drug officials and helicopters for the counterinsurgency mission.

"We are still waiting for an answer, but we know the Russian Federation is working on it," he said.

On Wednesday, during an expanded session of the Russia-NATO Council in Brussels, Ivanov presented Moscow’s seven-point plan on fighting drug production in Afghanistan and suggested creating a joint group with the alliance to tackle the problem.

Among other ideas, the plan included “an upgrade of the status of the Afghan drug production problem in the UN Security Council to the level of a threat to world peace and security."

Also, Moscow suggested that the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) would eliminate opium poppy plantations in Afghanistan using chemicals. And that is what the two sides failed to agree on. While sharing the view that the issue has to be addressed, Appathurai said “there is a slight difference of views”.

“Out of Moscow we hear a lot of calls for eradication. The view of the Afghan government up until now is that eradication is not the way to go…in particular aerial spraying," the NATO spokesman said as Reuters cites. "We have 120,000 people on the ground fighting the insurgency and that is the most effective way to tackle the drug problem."

The “effectiveness” of the campaign – which has been going on for eight years now – looks questionable, since opium production has soared to record levels. According to the Russian official, “a reserve for future generations” of 12,000 tonnes of opium – the key ingredient for heroin – has been created in the Islamic state, Rosbalt information agency writes.

NATO, however, argues that with such enormous amounts being stocked, eliminating poppy fields would not make much difference.

The Russian official reiterated that, thanks to the efforts of the world community, almost all opium poppies were eliminated and drug production had been curbed by 2002. However, since 9/11, the priorities in the approaches have changed.

”The resolute struggle with the Afghan drug threat cannot be delayed either to the full conflict settlement or the improvement of the economic situation or more favorable weather conditions," Ivanov said. "Just the opposite, it is impossible to achieve the settlement of the current conflict situation and the establishment of peace without a cardinal solution to the problems of drug cultivation, production and drug trafficking."

The alliance said it is ready destroy poppy crops, but only those that are meant to bring money to the Taliban – that is from $70 to $150 million. The rest, according to Ivanov, will be left to the Afghan government. Meanwhile, with 800 tons of opium being produced annually, one third is exported – 35 per cent of it to Russia – bringing Afghanistan’s drug lords the enormous sum of about $65 billion. That is in a country with GDP of slightly above $10 billion, according to Global Finance magazine.

Corruption is rampant in war-torn Afghanistan, according to a UN report published early this year. It has been speculated in the media that many in the country’s government, including Afghan President Hamid Karzai's brother, Ahmed Karzai, are allegedly linked to the profitable drug trade business. In that respect, it is quite understandable that they are against the eradication of opium poppies.

But would keeping opium poppies plantations as source of income for locals really serve its purpose and help the Afghan population? According to Ivanov, thousands of people in Afghanistan die from drug use each year.

Natalia Makarova, RT